Parents across the country will spend the next month fretting for the safety of their children as spring break ensues and college students are left to their own devices in Daytona Beach, South Padre and Cancun. Elsewhere, police warn of those looking to prey on families’ worst fears with scams and fraud.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has put out a notice to families of college students warning of what is commonly known as the “grandparents scam.”
“It’s surprisingly easy for a crook to gather enough online information to impersonate a loved one,” said Sandy Chalmers, DATCP assistant deputy secretary. “This is a scam we hear about on a regular basis in Wisconsin, so make sure your elderly friends and relatives know what to do if they get this call.”
This issue has been on the radar of the Federal Trade Commission since at least November 2008, when it sent out an alert that “Complaints are on the rise about a scam that preys on a grandparent’s love.”
In this particular seasonal con, the perpetrators, using just enough information and personal detail to look convincing, contact a relative of a college student, impersonating the student in a travel emergency — broken down outside city limits, lost passport or credit card, stuck in a Mexican prison — asking for help wiring money to get them out of a jam. Of course it would be humiliating, if not worse, for parents to find out about this kind of crisis, so the “student” asks that it be kept between them.
A second person is sometimes brought in to add authenticity in a follow-up call, posing as a police officer or a bail bondman over the phone.
As much as these situations are often enough talked about as a running gag by students and parents, fear of a family member in immediate danger is a powerful motivator.
Canadian authorities in February shut down a Montreal-based operation working this scam by targeting American seniors.
If you receive an urgent, suspicious call, the DATCP advises, first, not to give any identification, bank or credit card information over the phone, try calling the student or another relative to verify their safety, and contact local law enforcement who will be able to help with the situation.
In the unlikely event that you do have a young relative in a compromising position in another state or another country, the police are still in the best place to help and tend to do so with professional discretion.